Since 1960, the year Harper Lee first published To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch has figured prominently in the hearts, minds, and college essays of America’s youth. Atticus – the staunchly principled Southern lawyer (who heroically defends Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of rape) – helped Mockingbird win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. He stood as a model of moral courage and unflappable resolve in the face of injustice and racism. And now, the literary icon thousands of students have surely written about to help them get into college, is the subject of dismay, confusion, and disappointment.
On July 14, 2015, 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, a previously undiscovered Harper Lee novel, Go Set A Watchman, was released to the public. It appears that Watchman was actually a first draft of Mockingbird – a fact which makes the book all the more shocking; readers are confronted with a very different Atticus. The Watchman Atticus belongs to a group closely tied to the KKK, and is thoroughly unwilling to change with the times. What makes this discovery so surprising is that Watchman is set 20 years after To Kill A Mockingbird, which begs the question: how could this be the same man? How could this heroic father become as bigoted and backwards as the very people he stood up against in Mockingbird?
In some ways, though, Watchman makes To Kill A Mockingbird, and more specifically Atticus Finch, all the more extraordinary. Mockingbird was written through the eyes of Atticus’ six-year-old daughter, Jean-Louise, who understandably saw Atticus, her father, as a hero among men. His moral failings, therefore, went unacknowledged. But much of Atticus’ actions in Mockingbird, even in light of Watchman’s revelations, still prove heroic; Atticus did defend Tom Robinson, a black man in the South, from an unjust hanging; he did sit outside Robinson’s cell one night with a shotgun to protect him from a violent KKK mob; and, most significantly, he did manage to put aside his archaic personal views when it was called of him. Though in the wake of Watchman, our perception of Atticus may have changed, Lee’s two novels combine to form a powerful message: We can put aside personal beliefs, however strong they might be, to do what is righteous in the end. As such, Atticus Finch’s integrity may even be more praise-worthy today than it was 55 years ago, given the intensity of his troubling convictions. For college-gazing high school students who, until Watchman, were thinking of writing about Atticus on their Common App, maybe there is still something there worth exploring.